No Telephone to Heaven

by Michelle Cliff

Start Free Trial

PROBLEM OF IDENTITY IN NO TELEPHONE TO HEAVEN

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In in Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven, the main character, Clare Savage, is conflicted over her mixed racial and class backgrounds, which mirror the history of Jamaica, her country of birth. Clare’s mother’s family are landowners, wealthy people, but they are not white. There are many different “races” on the island, resulting from different mixtures of Spanish, British, African, and Indian blood, and there is little race prejudice, but great class prejudice and a great gap between the rich and the poor. Her father is lighter than her mother, and in the United States, where they immigrate when Clare is fourteen, he can pass for white. Clare’s father is a spendthrift and leaves Jamaica because of gambling debts. In the United States, they are part of the lower classes, not the upper classes. Clare’s mother, overcome by the race prejudice she experiences, returns to Jamaica with Clare’s younger sister, thinking that Clare can also pass for white and therefore will be fine. But when her father tries to enroll her in private school, she is denied a place because the headmistress guesses that she has mixed ancestry and is therefore, in America, “black,” or, as Clare would say, “a nigger.” Her father insists that she identify as white, but she is attracted to the Civil Rights movement and identifies with the four little girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing of 1963. Clare attends college in England (borrowing money from her uncle in Jamaica), but doesn’t feel like she fits in with the upper-class British people she meets. She meets a young African American, Bobby, who she travels around Europe with, but Bobby is permanently scarred by his Vietnam experience as a black soldier, experiencing a level of race discrimination which Clare will never have to face.

While at a party in Jamaica when she is in her young twenties, Clare meets and befriends Harry/Harriet. Harry/Harriet is described as “boy-girl, Buster’s brother-sister, half-brother-sister actually, who was always strange, since childhood.” Harry is transgender. He wears a bikini and makeup and dances for the other young party-goes but doesn’t yet dress consistently as a woman. Harry is the son of Buster Said’s wealthy father and his maid. The Saids kept the baby and dismissed the maid, raising Harry as a foster child. Harry grows up with the wealthy Saids and their friends but is never really one of them, because of his confused sexual identity and his confused class identity. Harry/Harriet and Clare keep up a correspondence and he encourages her to return to Jamaica to help her country, which is descending into chaos caused by the great inequality between rich and poor, which is described in detail in the novel through the story of Christopher, a day laborer who grew up in the hovels of the poor and ends up slaughtering a wealthy family whom he works for.

Harry/Harriet tells Clare: “We are neither one thing nor the other . . . the time will come for both of us to choose. For we will have to make the choice. Cast our lot. Cyann live split. Not in this world.” Harry/Harriet makes his choice while Clare in in Europe—he begins to dress and act like a woman 100% of the time, and becomes a nurse, working in a hospital by day and helping the poor in his free time. He does not have the money for a sex change, but he has made his choice nonetheless. Clare realizes that she must also choose, between her white and her black and Indian ancestors (she has British, African, and Indian blood), between the rich and the poor. She chooses to identify with her oppressed ancestors, not the oppressors. She lets the Jamaican revolutionaries use her grandmothers abandoned Jamaican farm, which she now owns, as a base, and joins the revolutionaries who are determined to save the island from the capitalist invaders and wealthy white corrupters/oppressors. Harriet (formerly Harry/Harriet) has joined them also. The militants plan to massacre a foreign movie crew that is filming in Jamaica, but they are betrayed and killed by the Jamaican army. Although the novel ends in tragedy, Clare is made whole by her choice of her “tribe,” identifying more with the descendants of the Maroons, the escaped slaves who formed settlements away from slavery in the highlands of Jamaica, than with her white ancestors with their history as pirates, buccaneers, enslavers and torturers of the island’s first inhabitants and of African slaves imported into the colony to grow sugar.

Posted on